Tag Archives: Dante

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.

“The ‘Divine Comedy’ was written by Dante Alighieri during his lifetime.”

I suppose this should not have taken me quite so aback as it did, because the student who presented me with this revelation was in my World Literature I survey. We read selections from the Hebrew Bible, written by writers claimed to have been divinely inspired; we also read selections from the Qur’an, according to the book itself dictated by Allah to Mohammed. So perhaps my student felt it necessary to make a distinction between those texts written by (or dictated or revealed to) entities who did not actually have a “lifetime,” and those written by flesh-and-blood creatures while they still walked the earth.

Dante’s masterpiece describes an extensive journey the narrator/poet makes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in the company of the Roman poet Virgil. Where did he get the ideas he portrays by way of this allegorical trek? He doesn’t say: unlike Coleridge explaining “Kublai Khan,” he makes no claims of an interrupted opium dream; unlike Julian of Norwich, he doesn’t attribute his interpretation of God’s will to visits from Jesus during an illness; unlike John Bunyan, he doesn’t even say the story came to him in a regular dream. Simply, the narrator finds himself midway on the road of life, lost in a gloomy wood; Virgil comes along, and they go on their adventure. Out-of-body experience?

Wherever he got his ideas, we can be pretty sure Dante wrote them down while still alive.

I probably asked for this. When they write commentaries on passages from assigned readings in their Journals, my students are required to note title, author, culture, and when written. This student doesn’t seem to have spent any time with the textbook’s introductory materials at all. Culture from which this text comes? He says Roman. Okay, now, Virgil was in fact Roman. And Dante lived in Italy. But Dante was a Florentine, not a Roman; and he certainly did not live during the Roman Empire, which is what we generally mean when we refer to the Roman culture. Given this sketchy notion of “where,” why should I have been surprised by a sketchy notion of “when”? Why look up the date? In fact The Comedy was written during his political exile from Florence; by 1317 “Inferno” had been published. When the other pieces of the poem were written is uncertain, but “Paradiso” was probably published after his death in 1321 at age 56.

Perhaps my student actually did take a look at the introduction and got the notion that Dante did some of his writing after death too. But if so, he confidently asserts that The Divine Comedy was not among those writings.

And I have to say I’m glad. The idea of literature coming to us from beyond the grave is unsettling, to say the least.

But since we’re fairly certain that every writer who wrote did so while alive (even those who were writing from spiritual direction), we generally don’t take the time to note the fact. My student’s taking the trouble to do so suggests that he felt it worthy of remark. That’s almost as unsettling as ghostly composition—composing while decomposing, as it were…

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: "I had not thought death had undone so many." And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.